By Ralph Ramkarran
There appears to be no consensus among parliamentary parties about a date for the first sitting of the National Assembly after the just concluded recess.
There also appears to be some confusion as to the procedure by which the National Assembly is to be convened. It is claimed that the Government has to make a request of the Speaker. The AFC, on the other hand, relies on Standing Order (S.O.) 8(2) which permits the Speaker, if in his opinion the public interest so requires, to convene the National Assembly to a day earlier than that to which it stands adjourned.
Under this S.O. the pre-requisite for the Speaker’s intervention is that a date must have already been fixed, which is not the situation. The AFC also relies on the Opposition’s 51 percent of the seats. The Opposition Leader says that it is out of their hands.
The National Assembly is normally adjourned to a named date. But quite often it is adjourned to a ‘date to be fixed.’ In the latter case, the National Assembly is re-convened upon a request to the Speaker by the Government, which nominates a date. From time to time there has been prior consultation with the Opposition but this has not been consistent.
S.O. 8(1), prior to 2006, relating to sittings of the National Assembly, provided that it ‘shall’ meet every day, except Saturdays and Sundays. This was amended in 2006 by substituting the word ‘may’ for ‘shall.’ The S.O. now states: “Save as otherwise provided by the Constitution or resolved by the Assembly upon a Motion moved by a Minister, the Assembly may sit every day except Saturdays and Sundays and, unless the Assembly otherwise decide, every adjournment shall be to the next sitting day.”
While the amended S.O. removes the more peremptory expression (‘shall sit’), it maintained the provision that the National Assembly must be adjourned ‘to the next sitting day’ unless ‘the Assembly otherwise decide.’
What is it that the Assembly can ‘otherwise decide?’ What does ‘otherwise decide’ mean? Since there is no provision anywhere in the S.Os to re-convene the National Assembly if it is not adjourned to a named date, then ‘otherwise decide’ can only mean that the National Assembly must adjourn to a named date otherwise there would be no way to re-convene.
‘Otherwise decide’ can also mean that the National Assembly can adjourn without a date being named as opposed to ‘a date to be fixed.’ If this happens it would automatically re-convene on the ‘the next sitting day,’ subject, of course, to the administrative requirements that are necessary to get a sitting going.
It is for good reason that no one has been given authority in the S.Os to fix a date to convene or re-convene the National Assembly. No one needs it. Each sitting concludes with a fixed resumption date, namely, the date named upon the adjournment, or ‘the next sitting day’ if no date is named.
Adjournment to ‘a date to be fixed’ means that a process of arriving at a date and then re-convening has to be undertaken. As above described, no one has the authority to do so. The practice grew up over many decades. All stakeholders assumed that it did not violate any rule. Now under scrutiny for the first time, it is clear that it does. It ought never to have been allowed by the current or past Speakers, myself included. I take responsibility for my own omission.
In view of these interpretations, the more permissive construction of the amended S.O. 8(1) (‘may’) can hardly alter the necessity for an adjournment to a named date or to no date, as opposed to ‘a date to be fixed.’
How, therefore, should the ‘next sitting day’ be interpreted when the National Assembly is adjourned?
This phrase can only make sense if it is interpreted to mean the date which is named upon the adjournment, or alternatively, if no date is named, the next day when the National Assembly is capable of sitting.
Since the National Assembly is normally adjourned for the recess without a date being named, as has occurred on this occasion as well, then ‘the next sitting day’ has to be the October 11, the day after the recess ended.
In the absence of any procedure to re-convene the National Assembly, and having regard to the rule that the National Assembly is adjourned to the ‘next sitting day’ where no date is named upon the adjournment, the Speaker was obliged to have convened the National Assembly on October 11 pursuant to the authority of S.O. 8(1).
Having failed to do so, he should lose no further time and should convene the National Assembly at the earliest possible opportunity. He is precluded from consulting with anyone because the ‘next sitting day’ is provided for in the S.O. and its meaning is clear. It cannot be changed by negotiation. The Standing Order speaks for itself.
Every day that goes by without a sitting of the National Assembly constitutes a violation of the Standing Orders. This is a matter, simple as it might appear, that is fundamental to our parliamentary democracy. There should be no dispute about something as basic as how and when the National Assembly can and should meet. This needs to be resolved now.